The ongoing Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) agitation for a separate Gorkhaland state that has paralysed tourism in the West Bengal’s Himalayan town of Darjeeling in the summer season may also cripple business in the forthcoming Durga puja holidays, say operators. Darjeeling, due to its vantage location in the Eastern Himalayas, straddling nature reserves and Buddhist sites, as well as proximity to northeast India, Nepal and Bhutan – draws around 600 tourists per day during summer till July.
However, with the GJM-sponsored indefinite shutdown, the stream of tourists has come down to a trickle. Around 45,000 travellers were estimated to be present before the start of the agitation on Monday. “Only few stranded tourists are up there. All reservations for the summer season have been cancelled and we have had cancellations for the Durga puja season as well. There are a lot of NRI families who visit Kolkata during the puja and then extend their trip to include Darjeeling but now it’s all restricted to the city,” Anil Punjabi, chairman, eastern region, Travel Agents Federation of India, told IANS.
As incidences of violence spilled out onto the plains on Saturday – the sixth day of the shutdown, hotels, homestays and eco-resorts downed shutters as drinking water supply and access to staples were hit in the ensuing chaos. Certain routes such as Pankhabari, the narrow, picturesque tea gardens-lined road from Bagdogra airport to Kurseong hill station, 32 km from Darjeeling, witnessed widespread protest rallies and arson, rendering them inhospitable for tourists.
Punjabi reckoned around Rs 70 to 80 lakh worth of business may have been lost due to the disturbance. Once a summer resort for the British Raj elite, the popular happy-go-lucky town is home to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways or toy trains, verdant tea gardens and the unparalleled Darjeeling tea. Tourism and tea are its mainstays.
Home to iconic bakeries and cafes such as Keventer’s and Glenary’s serving an English breakfast, the sleepy Darjeeling springs to life in the summer season as tourists from across the globe troop in to watch the sunset at Tiger Hill or gaze at the mighty Kanchenjunga peak. One of the most popular attractions, the toy-train service of Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, was also suspended in view of the strike for the safety of passengers and staff.
Stampede-like situations were observed in the last couple of days as tourists made a mad scramble to hop on to special buses pressed into service by the state government. Over 50 buses have been plying stranded tourists from the hills to the plains in Siliguri to get them to exit points at Bagdogra airport and New Jalpaiguri railway station.
The GJM announced an indefinite general strike from Monday in the hills encompassing Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts and the Dooars (foothills covering stretches of Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar district) protesting against Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s decision to make Bengali language compulsory in state-run schools.
The strike was called even as the Chief Minister assured that the new rule would not be imposed in the hill districts.